Iowa’s LGBT groups balance community and COVID for Pride month plans

By: - June 1, 2021 10:52 am

Cedar Rapids celebrates Pride month in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Corey Jacobson)

Ginger Snaps must wait a few more months before she dons her wig, tights, and “rhinestones and rhinestones and more rhinestones” to act as the emcee at the Quad Cities Pride Festival. 

“The way I look at it, every time I get on stage, the one thing I want is the audience to leave with a smile on their face, because then I know I’ve done my job,” the drag performer and Miss Gay Illinois 2020 champion said. “Especially after this past year, we need that.”

Ginger Snaps is the emcee at the Quad Cities Pride Festival. (Photo courtesy of Ginger Woodruff)

Snaps, known day-to-day as Ginger Woodruff, has been involved with the twice-annual Quad Cities Pride Festival since 2015. But this year, she’ll have just one event to lead for the group, as organizers decided to cancel the June event and focus instead on “Fall Pride” in September. The festival is one of several LGBT events across Iowa that have been delayed or changed as COVID-19 numbers wane in the state.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say fully vaccinated people can attend crowded, outdoor events, like Pride parades, but that those events are some of the least safe environments for unvaccinated individuals. Fewer than half of Iowans — 43% — were fully vaccinated as of Friday, according to New York Times data.

Pride organizers emphasized the importance of prioritizing public health while also bringing the community together after a year of isolation.

“How do we connect after a really long and hard year and feel that sense of community again for the first time in a really long time?” asked Jen Carruthers, president of Des Moines’s Capital City Pride.

Capital City Pride this year will consist of 30 days of events that are less crowded than a traditional festival. Carruthers said 2019 was the largest Pride in 43 years, but it didn’t seem “socially responsible” to pack 30,000 people into the East Village this year.

“We also have to take into consideration public health, because we’re an immune-compromised community, right?” she said. “We’re a marginalized group of folks.”

The federal Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion reports that LGBT individuals face a range of health care disparities, from higher rates of homelessness and drug use to isolation and lack of services for LGBT elders. Carruthers said that LGBT people tend to have lower socioeconomic status and less access to health care, both issues made even more dire during the pandemic.

A tale of two Prides: Sioux City groups take different approaches

Sioux City has two main Pride celebrations: Sioux City Pride and SUX (pronounced “Sioux”) Pride.

Kyra Rose Shakers performs at SUX Pride in Sioux City. (Photo courtesy of Joe McCulley)

SUX Pride this year will be a two-day event on June 4 and 5. Friday night will be a festival in the city’s historic downtown. Then, the event will take over the Sioux City Convention Center on Saturday for a vendor fair, family and charity events, and, to end the night, a 21-plus “all-star show.” 

“The quality of entertainment is amazing all day long, but the people going from 9 (p.m.) on are usually national title holders or state title holders who really put a lot into this,” said Joe McCulley, executive director of SUX Pride. He expects over 1,000 people to attend.

Meanwhile, Sioux City Pride is pumping the brakes this year, delaying its annual Pride picnic and festival until Sept. 11. The family-friendly event drew about 800 attendees in 2019. 

“It just didn’t seem like enough people were going to get vaccinated quickly enough that it would be safe to hold an event that size,” said Karen Mackey, vice president of the Siouxland Pride Alliance, the group that organizes Sioux City Pride.

Instead, the organization will host a smaller Pride event every weekend in June, from “scooping the loop” in decorated cars to hosting a pizza party for LGBT youth.

The groups took different approaches in 2020, as well. SUX Pride hosted an event in 2020, though McCulley said it was smaller and masks were required. Sioux City Pride delayed and then canceled its festival in 2020.

Don Dew, president of the Siouxland Pride Alliance, told local NBC affiliate KTIV that Pride is meant to be a safe space for LGBTQ people — something that he didn’t feel was possible at the height of the pandemic.

“Pride is still meant to keep LGBTQ people safe,” Dew said last August. “Many of our community members are at higher risk of complications if infected with COVID-19 and our community also has higher rates of uninsured people.”

But both groups, be they partying in June or September, emphasized the importance of the LGBT community coming together, socializing and learning from one another.

“This last year with the pandemic and everything else, there were so many people that were part of the LGBTQIA community that were isolated, and they didn’t have the luxury of getting together and stuff like that,” said McCulley, noting that the same could be said for everyone, regardless of sexuality. “…We’ve all kind of found the importance of social interaction and human interaction.”

Some Prides to partner with businesses still struggling from pandemic

Pride celebrations are often financed by local businesses, but after a year of pandemic-related closures and restrictions, money is tight across the board. Andrew Glasscock, co-director of the Quad Cities Pride Festivals, said the event received fewer sponsorships for 2021 than usual.

“We understand, because of COVID restrictions, everyone’s had to make changes,” he said.

Several of this year’s festivals will promote the local business community in addition to celebrating LGBT community and history.

In Cedar Rapids, CR Pride will take the form of a “poster parade.” Participants will submit a poster on the theme of “color our world with Pride,” and illustrate what their float would look like in a traditional parade. Businesses have partnered with CR Pride to hang the posters in their windows, creating a makeshift parade route.

“We’ll be hanging those up in Czech Village and NewBo for the community to go down on their own time and look, and maybe stop in the business, from June 1 to June 15,” said Corey Jacobson, board president with the CR Pride.

SUX Pride is also drawing people out to local businesses. The two-day event begins with a night out in historic Sioux City — three blocks of restaurants, bars and antique stores for attendees to explore as entertainers perform on the street.

“We are actually trying to get the community to come out and support those businesses, because they’ve been impacted so heavily by COVID,” said McCulley. “They’re literally teetering on whether they’ll be able to stay open or not, so we’re trying to get the LGBT community to come out.”

Iowa City Pride festivities in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Skriver)

Legislative session casts a cloud over celebration

Pride month this year comes just weeks after lawmakers wrapped up an overtime legislative session that included 15 bills flagged by advocacy groups as anti-LGBT. In the final weeks of session, it looked like lawmakers may also squeeze in a transgender athlete restriction, as requested by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

None of the bills passed, and the session ended without any transgender athlete ban introduced. Even so, some organizers said the political climate changed how they’re approaching Pride this year.

Iowa City will be hosting a community Pride march in October, rather than a traditional parade. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the city’s first Pride celebration, festival director Lisa Skriver said, but this year will serve as the celebration. The theme: “Our pride we will maintain.”

“We’ve really done a lot with equality and rights, but there’s still tons of anti-trans legislation and anti-LGBT legislation introduced to the Legislature in Iowa just this year,” Skriver said. “So we want people to realize that it’s not something you can take for granted.”

Skriver said the march isn’t a formal protest, but organizers hope to honor the spirit of the first Pride. The first Pride celebrations took place in 1970 to commemorate a 1969 confrontation between LGBT attendees of the Stonewall Inn bar and the New York City police. 

“Look back at the history of where it started and keep fighting,” Skriver said. “But it’s also going to be a lot of fun.”

In Sioux City, Mackey said the Pride festivities won’t focus on legislative efforts. The September picnic will have all the usual activities, from LGBT storytime to “drag races” in high heels and women’s clothes. But separately, the Siouxland Pride Alliance is launching its first-ever LGBT youth support group, a move partially prompted by Iowa’s political climate.

“I think some of that comes from the stuff kids are going through in school now, and when you have your state Legislature doing things like this, it poisons the well for everyone,” she said.

CR Pride in Cedar Rapids is an apolitical nonprofit, but organizer Jacobson said the organization tries to raise awareness of LGBT policies proposed by the state. Community members can use that information as they wish, he said.

“It’s unfortunate to see the focus of the state Legislature,” Jacobson said. “We’re working to make sure that people know that they’re loved and accepted for who they are, and they always have a place within our community.”

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.